In her first two films, “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine,” actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons dabbled in magical realism. It’s not so surprising, then, that she has embraced the musical, allowing her characters to burst into song, as she does with the new “Black Nativity.”
“Black Nativity” is Lemmons’ fourth feature film, and — like the current “The Best Man Holiday”— is a bittersweet Christmas movie with a strong black cast.
It begins by establishing its rhythmic roots in poet Langston Hughes, before awkwardly launching into its first song, sung by Langston (Jacob Latimore), a modern-day Baltimore teen named after the poet.
At Christmastime, his mom (Jennifer Hudson) is struggling to make the rent, so she makes a desperate decision and sends Langston to Harlem to live with her estranged parents, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett).
The reverend is an upright fellow, stern and unyielding, but Whitaker’s performance eventually reveals his pain and the sacrifices he has made. Bassett is equally wonderful.
Langston is expected to follow the rules of the house, which include attending church, and especially the reverend’s annual Christmas sermon.
But he would rather help his mother raise the rent money — by any means necessary. He begins hanging out at a nearby pawnshop and meets the shady Tyson (Tyrese Gibson).
All of the characters join in the singing, though the music is not exactly Christmasy. While it encompasses gospel and hip-hop, it is slow, full of sorrow and sometimes rage. It deliberately avoids catchy rhythms or singalong lyrics. (This is no “Dreamgirls.”)
At the Christmas sermon, Langston dozes off and has a fragmented dream about the nativity story mixed with his own life, accompanied by a song by Mary J. Blige and Nas. It’s too bad the powerful moment has such a harsh, realistic look (likely due to the use of digital video).
The lush, dreamy cinematography of “Eve’s Bayou” helped smooth the boundaries between realism and magic. The lines in “Black Nativity” are more sharply defined, giving the film a strange, jagged effect. Yet Lemmons often makes use of this rhythm with some clever, precisely placed juxtapositions.
Some viewers may be turned off by the film’s general downbeat tone or overt religiousness. Yet its ultimate point is not about finding God, but embracing family — a lovely idea to hang on to this holiday season.
REVIEW Black Nativity
Starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore
Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons